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16. August, 2012

Julian Assange is in the news a lot at the moment, and the argument about what should or shouldn't happen regarding him seems bizarrely polarized.

Assange, as most people probably know, runs WikiLeaks which a while ago published a mass of diplomatic cables, generally embarrassing a bunch of bigwigs, especially in the US. The accusation has also been made that the cables potentially put people in danger, but this is rather tricky to ascertain. Not only that, but when WikiLeaks offered to let officials help redact the cables to prevent endangering lives, they were refused.

Separately, Assange has been accused of rape in Sweden. The facts surrounding this are frequently painted in quite moronic monochrome; a supporter will say that all that happened was a condom broke, whilst his detractors will just say he is accused of raping two women. It is clearly wrong to paint the picture as so simple (even should one turn out to be correct) since the charges were bounced between rape and something-bad-but-not-rape (although some people think this is evidence of conspiracy against him) In any case it seems plausible that he did something pretty nasty and ought to be questioned about it, ignoring everything else.

Before he could be brought in for questioning in Sweden, Assange left for the UK. In December 2010, Assange went to a police station in the UK and was subsequently arrested, but later released on bail. He was to be extradited to Sweden for the crimes allegedly committed there. His lawyers appealed, but ultimately the decision was upheld. However in June 2012 he took refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London and requested political asylum. This was in breach of his bail conditions, meaning he has now definitely broken the law in the UK, regardless of his guilt in Sweden.

The contention is that the only reason he's being sent to Sweden is so he can be extradited to the United States, who could prosecute him for treason, which carries the death penalty. This would be wrong since Assange has not really done anything to the US apart from publish embarrassing things. Furthermore, several renowned newspapers also published information from the leaks, making them just as culpable for this alleged crime.

But this does not actually warrant the hysteria that surrounds the case all over the web. A trip to the wikipedia page for the European Arrest Warrant (the system used to request that the UK send Assange to Sweden) is enough to inform anyone that Assange cannot be extradited from Sweden to the US without the UK's permission. So sending him to Sweden will make it harder, not easier, for him to be sent to the US.

This, alone puts paid to all the people crying "conspiracy" over the fact that Sweden is refusing to interview Assange in the UK or to guarantee he will not be extradited to Sweden. Even so that is ridiculous; they require Assange to be questioned in Sweden — as, apparently they do of everyone else in this situation — and Assange has no right to demand otherwise. Sweden's judiciary is independent from its government, so their diplomats can no more guarantee they will not extradite him to the US then I can, and asking the courts to decide on a case before it's been given to them is all kinds of stupid. Even without guaranteeing anything though, Swedish law does not allow people to be extradited for crimes carrying the death penalty. You have to be fairly paranoid (or worried they're going to find guilty of sexual assault) to try and use this argument.

Then there is the nonsense with the UK's letter to Ecuador's diplomats. If you believe what Ecuador, the rest of South America, and any of Assange's fans claim about the letter, it contained an explicit threat that the UK was going to bust down the doors guns blazing, snatch Assange and fly away.

What the letter actually did was draw Ecuador's attention to a law "that would allow us to take actions in order to arrest Mr Assange in the current premises of the Embassy." There were of course other more conciliatory things in the letter, and rather less amicable statements that they consider the use of the embassy in this manner incompatible with the Vienna Convention (the bit of international law that governs diplomatic missions)

Of course it's all written in the language of diplomacy, so what looks fairly innocent could rightly be perceived as a threat. But it is facetious to cry about the UK acting imperialist and trampling on international law by storming the embassy, when Ecuador first harboured a criminal (not just an alleged criminal, since by just being there he's breaching bail.)

This is particularly ridiculous since the Vienna Convention expressly prohibits interfering in the host country's domestic affairs (and whether the UK extradites Assange is such) and since what the UK has said it could do is remove the embassy's diplomatic status (should it indeed by found to have violated the Vienna Convention) and then arrest someone who's currently residing there. If this all went according to plan, then the "inviolability" of diplomatic missions which Ecuador's president likes to refer to is entirely irrelevant, since the building won't be an embassy.

It's slightly more complicated than that because embassies have been used somewhat regularly for people to escape political persecution by claiming asylum, and the UK's law seems to say they can intervene whenever this happens. While this is a genuine issue, noone seems to be claiming that it is a requirement of international law that the host of a diplomatic mission allow them to ship alleged criminals out. In any case, it's certainly not being claimed that Assange is facing political persecution in the UK, it's that he might face it if he is extradited from Sweden to the US, which doesn't seem really to be the point of political asylum, and anyway, as mentioned above, will be strictly harder than extraditing him from the UK, since then both the UK and Sweden would have to agree.

On the other hand there are those who cry that he has endangered the lives of soldiers, that he raped two women and deserves everything he gets. This is also premature since there's little evidence that the leaks endangered anyone and, if it did, the people who could really have redacted the cables to prevent that refused to help. And whilst he ought to answer to the Swedish justice system, it's not in the least bit clear what, if anything, he has done that is criminally wrong.


26. May, 2011

So the University year is drawing to close, and I have only one thing left to do. It's quite weird to think that an entire chapter of my life is ending, but sitting right in the middle of it, nothing really seems to be changing, not yet anyway.

When I was younger I used to wonder whether, when I was older, there would be any points where my life would change drastically, and tried to imagine possible times. Starting my first full-time job was the only one I can remember; the recurring problem was that I would get to the point I'd imagined and be unable to recall what I had imagined it would be like, and so not be able to compare. I'm not even sure what I imagined starting work would be like, but (if you call a PhD work...) I can't imagine it will be that much of a jarring transition. And if you don't call a PhD work, then it will be even less of a change to go from there to post-doctoral work or whatever.

Anyway, we shall see whether I do just float gently through the waters of academia, starting in a few months.

In the news recently has been a somewhat mystifying frenzy over Ken Clarke's comments regarding rape. I can't decide whether I am actually in the minority of opinion on this topic, or whether the media is just overburdening the poor horse drawing this bandwagon. Certainly, Ken dropped a few clangers, but to suggest that admitting degrees of seriousness for serious crime makes the crime seem less serious is fairly bizarre. The example Clarke gave was a good one although apparently it's not necessarily rape under UK law, but nonetheless it's not too hard to dream up an example of rape that is, while still well on the serious side of the scale of serious to non-serious, is nonetheless lower than some other example.

Before I continue, perhaps it would be prudent for me to stress that I consider rape a serious crime for which the responsibility always lies with the offender. (although statutory rape, if it turns out to exist, perhaps does not fall into this category. In the eyes of the law, no consent would have been given, but in reality it's a little more complex at least) Further I should probably just apologise in advance in case anyone reading this gets offended or angry. Nonetheless, this is what I think and I'm going to write it down.

Most things I've read have people arguing that admitting this amounts to saying that rape is not serious, which is such a blatant non-truth it's difficult to understand why anyone would say it. No-one supposes that because murder is pretty bad, you can't have even worse murder.

A more interesting contention is that allowing degrees of seriousness, while not actually implying that the umbrella category is overall less serious, might cause people to nonetheless thing that way. This is more of a possibility, but in practical terms I think it is pretty much never worth trying to second guess the public in this way. If, it turns out, it is worth making the distinction — and by all accounts though, it seems the case that a judge will hand out more or less severe penalties to what are being described as more or "less" serious rapes — then it should be done, and it is up to the government or some public body to ensure that this does not do anything to increase crime, decrease the reporting or conviction of crime, and so on. (Perhaps it would be worth getting Orwellian to satisfy people on this subject - we could have serious and doubleserious rapes... hopefully this will be taken as a statement about the camp of dissatisfied people, not about rape.)

At the risk of further enraging people with controversial opinions about a sensitive topic, I find it similarly odd that people are so loath to allow even a proportion of blame with victims, as if we live in a world where blame is assigned to one and only one person for every event. This came to the fore recently with the police officer who told a bunch of students not to dress sluttily (perhaps not his precise words) in order to help prevent rape. Now, it's pretty much a given that you can't make such statements without being explicit about what you're not saying. For example, if you're going to say that, you should make it clear you're not saying that rape is "the fault" of the victim.

But it is still a simple question of fact as to whether wearing revealing clothing increases ones chance of being raped, and if it does then it is arguably prudent to avoid it. Similar but less controversial advice is to avoid getting so drunk that you pass out, and to guard your drink. If one doesn't follow this advice, the chance of becoming the victim of rape is increased and so, in some sense, the victim acquires some measure of responsibility. The fact that the question is never "how much" but rather "whether" is confusing, because if you knowingly act so as to increase the probability of something happening, it seems to follow immediately you take on some proportional amount of responsibility. The fact that the ultimate responsibility can lie with someone else is not in question; only the balance of proportion is.

Of course, in the particular case of the police officer, I don't think the somewhat philosophical question above even enters into it. Advice is advice and should be judged on its practicality, not on its perceived implications. It would not be advisable for a white person (to purposefully choose an uncommon example) to walk through some parts of Zimbabwe, or into some bars in India, where whites are generally seen as signs of colonial oppression and might suffer violence simply for being there. The response we see here would be like rejecting this advice as being racist; it is not racist, it is acknowledging that racists exist and are willing to hurt people, and if you want to stay out of harms way you can and should take steps to avoid it. Acknowledging that rapes happen and advising on methods of avoiding it can coexist with other strategies for preventing rape (for example, locking up rapists) and does not in any way reduce the responsibility of the offender.

Alternative Vote

2. May, 2011

So, we're having a referendum on the voting system on Thursday, which is pretty cool. What hasn't been cool is the campaigning that's been done — more so from the No campaign, but true also of the Yes people. Before I go further I should state my allegiances, which lie with AV. In fact I would prefer a system of proportional representation, but I think that is true of a lot of people who will be voting Yes.

My main issue with the arguments being levelled is that the majority of them, either by number or by weight accorded, are missing the main point. In my opinion, voting reform is fundamentally about what is fair, not about who benefits. Of course, no-one is going to act without regard for the practical consequences likely to follow, but the voting system, as we know, is not something that is changed easily, and to vote either way out of concern for short term gains or to "punish" someone is short-sighted and somewhat disgusting.

There will always be problems in disentangling the arguments because the people saying their favoured system is fair are generally the same ones whose party stands to gain from it. That said, I've not heard any arguments tackle head on in just what way FPTP is fairer than AV when faced with just how prevalent "tactical voting" seems to be. Which is perhaps not surprising; to do so would require someone to honestly declare they think it is fairer to vote categorically and unambiguously for someone other than the one you want to win than to be able to list a few preferences in order.

So far I've had two pieces of No literature through the door, and it is true that the second is better than the first. That said I think this is mainly because it's shorter, but no longer are they claiming that some people get more votes under AV (presumably because their votes get transferred, but this seems to be quite a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to be transferred.) Nor are they claiming it is too complicated. I like to think the No campaign realised they were making themselves look too dim-witted to understand the system (which really isn't complicated, although of course more complicated than FPTP) but really — all the voter needs to understand is that they list any candidates they wouldn't mind winning in order of preference. If they want to know what happens after that, it is not hard to find out and, after all, the number of countries which use STV or D'Hondt is high, and those are pretty crazy in comparison. AV is sufficiently easy that organisations everywhere (my own favourite, COGS, uses a near-equivalent method with runoffs in the case of no absolute majority) use it at their AGMs and so forth to elect just about anything.

They're still saying that AV will lead to more hung parliaments (probably true) but neglect to mention that plenty of countries manage with coalition governments, that no-one will vote for the Lib Dems next election anyway and that the people in favour of keeping FPTP by-and-large approved of the "broken promise" we're all thinking about anyway; talk about preaching to the choir. Of course, it'd be more likely that we'd have Labour and Lib Dem coalitions, and so they'd be more likely to more or less agree on more policies, which again would mitigate this allegation.

They're also still spreading the downright lie that AV will cost £250m to implement. By now anyone who has been following the debate knows that this figure includes £130m on installing imaginary electronic vote counters (other legislatures do not use these to count votes for AV, and there is no intention of installing them in Britain). This is the first lie. The second is that it includes the cost of the referendum itself, which is, needless to say, already spent and not a reason to vote No. This has understandably riled the Yes campaign enough that they have even muttered about legal action. Perhaps futile, but this is electoral fraud of the grandest scale, and I really hope it does not disappear into the mire of old news after the referendum.

On the other side of the debate, the main irritation I have with the Yes campaign is their cheap stab with the expenses scandal. I am fairly convinced that fiddling expenses is a fairly low priority in the grand scheme of British politics, and if there is a culture of doing so the entire blame cannot be lumped solely on the individuals. The ensuing media frenzy still seems to have people convinced that people who tweak their expenses are the root of all that is wrong with the world, but I suspect that the ethos that it was "alright" to charge for flatscreen TVs could easily have survived whatever the voting system. It is worth noticing also, that the MP they like to cite — the one who charged for polishing his moat or something — had the support of over 50% of his constituency.

"Greater accountability" is a nice woolly term that is bandied about by the Yes party too. While it might be true that MPs will be worried about maintaining a broad base of support while in parliament, I doubt that you will change such an unquantifiable thing quickly or with any one measure. Regardless, this must come secondary to whether or not the right people end up in parliament.

But as I stated initially, my core anger is that so many people seem to be advocating voting no to "give Clegg a kicking" or to "vote Yes to keep the Tories out." For the first, Clegg is going to have more of a kicking than anyone could ever administer in a referendum at the next general election, and indeed at the coming local elections. The second I can more identify with, of course, but on its own it's way wide of the point, which is that the Tories should (in general) not be in government because that's what most people would prefer, i.e. that's what they'd democratically choose.

The same goes when talking about the BNP (who come up whenever the voting system is mentioned.) Now, quite apart from the fact that it would be impossible for the BNP to gain the support of 50% of a constituency (which, I feel like adding at this inopportune moment, is not necessary if people don't list enough preferences, although I guess near enough correct for a headline) I find it useful to point out that the BNP got more votes than the Greens yet the Greens have a seat in parliament. There really is no possible way that this can be considered "fair" and, ultimately and regrettably, if a bunch of people vote for the BNP it is their right that they be represented fairly. Now even in fully proportional systems there are usually measures to ensure that parliament doesn't get swamped with a ton of small, extreme parties, and this would likely exclude the likes of the BNP, but this is not inconsistent with them being fair, because a bunch of small parties is undesirable for other reasons. But to vote on the voting system with a specific party's gains or losses in mind as a significant point is overly cynical.

The real shame is that there is a real debate to be had. If you head over to YouTube there are people there hashing out the pros and cons of FPTP and AV, whether tactical voting is truly eliminated (it's not, but it's made so difficult and unreliable as to be pointless given the political landscape in Britain) and getting on with inserting kittens into everything. But this important discussion has been rejected in favour of mudslinging. Hardly surprising, but deeply disappointing, especially if, as it appears will happen, the No campaign wins out. (Although, from what I've heard, the campaigning might not have had much effect either way)

For my part, I'll be voting Yes on Thursday because I think AV is a fairer system than what we have now, because it makes tactical voting difficult enough that people will probably stop doing it, resulting in a parliament more representative of the people's preferences. Analogies to races and appeals to "one man, one vote" are presupposing that the system ought to work like a race, where the person judged to be better than any other individual candidate is the best. This is as opposed to an election, where the person who gains the most support from the electorate should win, and since people can rationally support more than one candidate in differing amounts, this should be reflected in who is elected. Some real information on the relative benefits and shortcomings of AV can be read on this wikipedia article, and see also the main article on AV.